KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa – Smelly is a 27-year-old elephant, the mother of a healthy 17-month-old baby boy named Stinky. She spends most of her day foraging for food and breast-feeding her rambunctious boy.
Should Smelly and her son be killed? South Africa may soon begin shooting thousands of elephants because their game parks have too many elephants. Smelly is not actually at risk, because she is in a private game reserve, but many elephants like her are under threat.
Too many elephants? Over the past 150 years ivory hunters have ruthlessly killed the world’s largest land mammals for their ivory tusks. Between 1979 and 1989 Africa’s elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 750,000, largely due to illegal poaching. But since 1989 the international ban on ivory sales in has helped Africa’s elephant populations to rebound.
South Africa’s elephants were nearly hunted to extinction in 1900, but now the population has grown to more than 20,000.
(Click here for a piece Jeff Barbee produced last year on the African trade in elephant ivory)
Kruger National Park is South Africa's main wildlife sanctuary and it sprawls over 7,300 square miles in northeastern South Africa. The park can only support 7,000 elephants, according to officials, but currently double that amount live in Kruger and the population is growing at an annual rate of more than 5 percent.
The elephants damage the park by pulling up too many of its trees and shrubs that are important fodder for other wildlife as well as elephants. Elephants are the earth’s biggest vegetarians, ranging in weight from four to seven tons, and they spend 16 hours a day foraging for the 300 to 600 pounds of grass, shrubs and branches that they eat daily. They need to drink about 50 gallons of water a day.
To see hungry elephants uprooting up bushes and stripping trees of branches, it is easy to understand how they can seriously harm a confined environment. Elephants have no predators and they can turn lush woodlands to a plain of stubs in a few years. Deforestation caused by the elephants is causing soil erosion and other degradation, say park officials.
South African parks officials announced in 2008 that they will begin killing 5,000 “excess” elephants. Although the government said it will consider moving the elephants to other countries and using birth control in addition to the killing, animal rights activists fear that the killing could begin soon.
Elephants are highly intelligent, considered to be as smart as humans and apes and dolphins, and they maintain close-knit societies based on maternal herds that raise young elephants. The elephants exhibit considerable emotions including happiness, humor, anger and grief. Elephants mourn the deaths of members of their herd, often by gathering in a circle and placing items around the corpse.
In a brutal logic, parks officials say it is more humane to kill entire herds rather than to kill some and leave others as grieving or furious survivors. The culling is organized with military precision in which herds of 20 or more elephants are rounded together by helicopters and jeeps and then all are shot dead.
In addition to the parks being overcrowded with elephants, people in the rural areas near the parks also complain that marauding elephants ruin their crops and often kill people who try to chase them away from their fields.
South Africa “has recognized the need the maintain culling as a management option, but has taken steps to ensure that this will be the option of last resort that is acceptable only under strict conditions,” said environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk in February. “The issue of population management has been devilishly complex and we would like to think that we have come up with a framework that is acceptable to the majority of South Africans.”
Animal rights groups insist that all other possible solution should be exhausted before any elephants are killed.
“All available options must be available to control the elephant population here and conserve the biodiversity of the national parks,” said Rob Little, conservation director in South Africa for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “The new government framework imposes a hierarchy of choices, and culling is right at the bottom. We are not going to see a mass destruction of elephants here.”